BBWAA Watchdog is dedicated to exploring the voting records of the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Their general secrecy about their members, their refusal to open their ranks to journalists outside of the print media, and, primarily, their awful voting history for baseball's highest awards, demand that their collective words and deeds be documented and critically examined.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

An Overdue Post

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. (Man, I bet my Latin-speaking, old-time Catholic mother is proud right now.)

I abjectly apologize for not only failing to post anything for a long, long time, but for also failing to post anything that explained why I would be MIA. My bad. Without further ado, a few catch up thoughts:
  • Me and the family were in Disney World for more than a week, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, as you would expect. It was hot as blazes, really humid, it rained every afternoon from 2:30 to 4:00, the lines were long and everything you bought cost at least 50% more than it should have, and were had a blast anyway. The experience of seeing your kids' faces when they enter the Magic Kingdom, or when they meet Snow White, or get off their first roller coaster that goes upside down is worth every stinkin' penny.

  • One of the days we were there, we drove over to Tampa-St. Pete to catch a Red Sox/Devil Rays game. It's my second dome, and I'll say this; they try hard. There's a great scoreboard with great information provided on it, the sound system is outstanding, the seats were pretty inexpensive, and the views were outstanding. And I still hated it. Playing a baseball game indoors just plain sucks.

  • One other note; the parking situation at Tropicana Field is the worst I've ever experienced at a major league stadium. We got to the freeway exit for the stadium, with the dome in plain site about 200 yards away, at about 5:45 for a 7:10 game. We barely got to our seats in time to see the first pitch. That's nearly an hour and a half from highway exit to seat, for those of you counting. With a decent opponent in town, the Trop's few parking lots filled up quickly, and not being quite far enough into the downtown area to have other parking facilities close by, people were stuffing their cars into any space they could find. I followed a line of cars into an empty field about a mile from the stadium that was used, at least in part, by homeless people who sheltered themselves under the one available tree. That's where we parked, and that's where we had to go to get our car after the game, in a dark, somewhat industrial area of St. Petersburg. In the rain. Wake up, St. Petersburg. If you're going to force people to watch baseball indoors, and you don't have a decent public transportation system to allow people to ride instead of drive, then the least you could do is spring for sufficient parking. As it is, you're sending the clear message that you never expect to draw more than 20,000 fans on a regular basis, because you've clearly made no plans to handle the traffic.

  • On a note far more in keeping with the intent of this site, I was very pleased to see the changes to the voting process for the Veterans' Committee that were outlined by the Hall of Fame. Not only did they separate the voting process for managers, executives, umpires and the like, a step that was long overdue and may finally result in some worthy inductions from those groups, but they weakened the power of the BBWAA in the process. Those groups will now be screened by a committee consisting mostly of Hall of Fame members, executives and historians, with only a few veteran writers involved. On top of that, the veteran players on the ballot will not only be fewer, creating a greater chance for a 75% majority necessary for election, but the voting will only be done by Hall of Fame players, specifically excluding the Ford Frick and J.G. Taylor Spink award winners who used to be part of the process. In other words, no more BBWAA doing the voting. A BBWAA-appointed overview committee will still be determining most of the ballot, but now a committee of six Hall of Fame players will appoint five others to the ballot. Overall, these changes lessen the power of the BBWAA, always a good thing, while making it more likely that deserving players, executives, umpires and the like will finally be elected. Sounds like a win-win to me. Kudos to the Hall of Fame for taking action.

That's it for now. I'm currently working on a more in-depth analysis of voting patterns on the Hall of Fame ballots. A cursory look at a half-dozen ballots from the early 1980s leads me to believe that there are some severe, documentable biases in the BBWAA's voting patterns, as hinted at in my last post. It's a somewhat tedious process to get all of the data into a format that lends itself to detailed analysis, so please be patient. I believe the results will be well worth the wait.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Quick Analysis - 1981 Hall of Fame Ballot

I've been trying to figure out how to make it clear that the BBWAA really doesn't do that good a job in the Hall of Fame voting. A lot of people seem willing to give them a free pass, as if their mistakes are few and successes many, and I'm simply not willing to follow along. To me, being awake enough to recognize that you should put a checkmark next to the likes of Mike Schmidt or Tom Seaver when your ballot arrives in the mail is not something terribly praiseworthy. I could do that, my 11-year old could do that, and I think, given a rudimentary understanding of the sport of baseball, most human beings could do that. I'd much rather grade these guys' performance based upon how well they vote on the cases that aren't so crystal clear.

That thought led me to decide to do some retroactive spot checks of the BBWAA's performance on past Hall of Fame ballots. I wanted these checks to be pretty simple. I don't want some new, proprietary statistical formula, or a catchy acronym. I just want a simple reality check on whether or not the BBWAA's votes, as a body, generally tracked with player performance.

To do that, I needed a couple of simple things. First, I needed the annual vote totals, which are handily available on the
Hall of Fame's website. (Though, I must say, the elimination of every players voting history from their new web design is somewhat vexing.)

Second, a needed a standardized performance measurement of some kind. I decided to use
WARP3 scores as the performance measure, for no other reasons than that they are internet-accessible and standardized. It's not perfect measure by any means, and can be downright misleading as just a flat, rolled-up number. But all I'm looking for is something that will be directionally correct, not precise to the nth degree. I just need a basic hammer to drive a basic nail, not a Paslode IMCT Impulse Cordless Framing Nailer.

So, in short, here's what I did. I picked a random Hall of Fame ballot (
1981 in this case) and ranked every player on it by total votes received and WARP3 score. Then I subtracted their rank in the voting from their WARP3 rank to get a basic delta that would show me whether or not they were overrated or underrated by the BBWAA. Like I said, nothing too complex here.

For instance, the top guy on the ballot was
Bob Gibson, with 337 votes. He also had the top WARP3 score, 119.8. So, subtracting his voting rank (1) from his WARP3 rank (also 1), he scores 0, meaning he was rated by the BBWAA exactly where he should be. Congratulations writers, you have past your first (and easiest) test. Now for some more results:

Underrated Players

Bill Mazeroski - 3 WARP rank minus 20 vote rank = -17
Luis Aparicio - 5 WARP rank minus 18 vote rank = -13
Dick McAuliffe - 21 WARP rank minus 33 vote rank = -12
Sam McDowell - 22 WARP rank minus 33 vote rank = -11
Leo Cardenas - 16 WARP rank minus 27 vote rank = -11
Vada Pinson - 13 WARP rank minus 23 vote rank = -10
Richie Ashburn - 2 WARP rank minus 11 vote rank = -9

I'll stop there because I don't think many people care about
Lindy McDaniel and Claude Osteen.

There are at least a couple noticeable trends. The heavy defense, weak offense guys don't seem to do too well. Mazeroski scored as well as he did in WARP almost entirely due to remarkable defense, something the writers seemingly couldn't care less about. Moreover, there isn't a single genuine power hitter in the group. Pinson had a touch of pop, but he was essentially a singles and doubles hitter his whole career, and without a string of batting titles the voters apparently decided he should reside with the rest of the banjo hitters near the bottom of the ballot.

Also, note that most of these guys played the bulk of their careers in the
Rust Belt. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati aren't exactly teeming with sportswriters who will stuff the ballot box for the local guys on the ballot. Chicago (Aparicio) and Philly (Ashburn) have a few more scribes who might be willing to pad the total of their readers' favorites, but apparently not for a pair of leadoff hitters whose teams never won the big one.

Among this group of underrated players, the BBWAA only changed their tune about Aparicio, and his case is genuinely strange. Aparicio first appeared on
the ballot in 1979 and received a healthy 28% of the votes cast. The next year he improved a bit, to 32%. Suddenly, with the 1981 ballot, his support dropped like a rock, with over 60% of his prior supporters deciding he was no longer worthy of their vote. This same kind of inexplicable drop ultimately doomed Luis Tiant’s candidacy a few years later, but apparently the voters decided Aparicio was worth saving. In 1982, he got all of his previous supporters back, and then some, collecting over 40% of the vote and ultimately being elected in 1984. In fact, eleven of the seventeen players who received more support than Aparicio on the 1981 ballot still appeared on the 1984 ballot and Aparicio passed every single one of them, getting the highest vote total of any player that year. What this means, among other things, is that in 1981 there were 120 voters who thought Nellie Fox was a Hall of Famer but that Luis Aparicio wasn’t, and just three years later that gap had swung completely the other way, with 95 voters casting their ballots for Aparicio but not Fox. In other words, 215 voters suddenly changed their minds about the relative position of the two men in baseball history. And they wonder why people question them.

One more note on the guys who were underrated in 1981. I don’t, in any way, believe that Dick McAuliffe or Sam McDowell belong in the Hall of Fame. But I do know that Sam McDowell was just as good a pitcher as
Lew Burdette or Roy Face or Don Larsen. Better in some cases. All of those guys got significant support, ranging from 23 to 48 votes, begging the obvious question as to how guys of that caliber got a few dozen votes while McDowell didn’t get any. Same goes for McAuliffe. He wasn’t a Hall of Famer on his best day, but he was a solid shortstop whose 64.8 career WARP3 score stands very nicely with the group of Ted Kluszewski (59.3), Harvey Kuenn (59.1), Elston Howard (58.2) and Roger Maris (56.6). The fewest votes any of those guys got was Kluszewski’s 56, yet McAuliffe got shut out entirely.

Speaking of some of those guys…

Overrated Players

Roger Maris – 28 WARP rank minus 12 vote rank = +16
Don Larsen – 35 WARP rank minus 21 vote rank = +14
Elston Howard – 26 WARP rank minus 14 vote rank = +12
Harvey Kuenn – 24 WARP rank minus 13 vote rank = +11
Gil Hodges – 11 WARP rank minus 3 vote rank = +8
Lew Burdette – 25 WARP rank minus 18 vote rank = +7

(Note: I skipped over two guys,
Glenn Beckert and Gates Brown, who each received one vote and were therefore technically overrated using this system. In the grand scheme of things, those two stray votes really aren’t in focus here. Whether or not writers should be casting spare votes in the direction of guys who no one really sees as a Hall of Famer is a topic for another day.)

What a shock, the three most overrated guys on the ballot were all Yankees. Skip a spot and you get a Brooklyn Dodger. Flabbergasting, isn’t it?

In all seriousness, this will be a very interesting trend to follow as I look at additional ballots. Maris and Larsen both have unique claims to fame outside of playing for IBM, err, I mean the Yankees, so their respective vote totals could be expected to receive boosts. That’s not really the case with either Howard or Hodges. They were very good players on very good teams, but neither had that single signature accomplishment or record that would garner them extra votes. I think the likelihood is that they were just more publicized than guys who were similar to them, almost certainly because they played the bulk of their careers in New York. The only other player on the ballot who could be identified either completely or mostly with a New York team was Thurman Munson, and though he wasn’t wildly overrated, he did, in fact, place a bit higher in the voting (16th) than his WARP score (18th) warranted.

One ballot is far too small a sample to draw any conclusions, but there are already a few things that need to be tracked. It will be interesting to see if a player’s style of play (slap hitter versus power hitter, or power versus finesse pitchers, for instance), or the number of years they’ve been on the ballot, prove to be significant factors in their levels of support. The most disturbing possibility is that there could be geographic bias on the ballot. It’s not as if anyone is surprised that players from New York get more votes. There’s simply more writers from there, ergo more voters who saw them play. On top of that, New York teams have historically played more games on television, giving their players more exposure to the writers that do the voting. A boost in their vote totals isn’t a shock in any way.

But what does that indicate? To me, it begs the question about whether or not the voting process should be changed. Each vote cast is supposed to be done objectively, with the writers chosen specifically because they saw more ballgames and therefore had more information at hand to render an objective opinion. The presence of any kind of bias means that the writers’ objectivity is compromised. If the writers really are throwing unwarranted support toward players they simply saw more often, at the expense of equal or better players in smaller markets, doesn’t that mean the process is broken? Isn’t the presence of any bias in the voting process, geographic or otherwise, an indicator that the writers can’t be objective, and therefore shouldn’t be voting?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Laying Down the Law

You have to love a good old-fashioned double standard when it crops up.

the Yankees revoked the press credentials of Hiroki Homma of The Fuji Evening News because he broke a rule that forbids members of the media from seeking autographs from players when he asked Roger Clemens to sign a copy of a photograph his newspaper had taken during Clemens' 350th win. This is a league rule, and it's clearly posted in major league clubhouses, sometimes even in Japanese given the influx of reporters from that country. It should be noted that it wasn't Clemens who had a problem with the reporter; he actually signed the autograph. But a clubhouse attendant noticed and informed the Yankees, who, following their own team policy and league guidelines written into the rule, revoked Homma's credentials for the season. They had every right to do so, and I have no problem with that.

In an official statement, the Yankees, Homma, and his newspaper have all agreed it was an innocent mistake, one arising from the different cultures involved. In Japan, apparently, reporters often seek autographs from players, and frequently go to dinner with them as well. Homma has acknowledged his mistake and apologized profusely while accepting his punishment, which will have little practical impact on him since the club can grant him game-by-game media rights in lieu of his standing press credential, and have indicated that they intend to do so.

You'd think that would be the end of the matter, but it isn't. Not satisfied to let that punishment stand, the BBWAA decided to strip Homma of his membership, his breech of journalistic ethics being so extreme, apparently, that he is no longer welcome in that organization. He can't apply for reinstatement until next year.

Now, remember that the BBWAA has members who have profited from
co-authoring players' autobiographies. As a voting body they make decisions on the MVP and Cy Young awards knowing that the players involved directly profit from the results through contract bonus clauses. They have members who accept the contributions of time and memorabilia from players for pet charitable causes (see Peter Gammons' "Hot Stove Cool Music" events).

They have members who have publicly refused to comply with baseball's rule for voting for the MVP, as
LaVelle Neal Jr. admitted when he refused to put Pedro Martinez anywhere on his ballot in 1999 on the grounds that he didn't feel pitchers should be eligible. They are, and baseball's rules clearly state they are, but Neal decided his judgement was better than baseball's and publicly said so.

They have voting members for the Hall of Fame who haven't worked as baseball reporters for years, but they continue to hold their voting rights because apparently these guys are deemed to be experts on evaluating a player's place in baseball history even long after they've stopped, you know, watching baseball games.

There are members of the BBWAA who have been
arrested for drunk driving. They have members who have been suspended by their employers for saying things like "she needs someone to smack her" (about a woman who was already a victim of domestic abuse).

None of these guys had their BBWAA membership yanked. Apparently, none of those infractions were considered to be too terrible by the BBWAA, but a guy mistakenly thinks it's okay to get an autograph and suddenly all hell breaks loose. Am I supposed to believe, after all of the BBWAA's winks and nods at the behavior of other members, that this is their standard for unacceptable ethics?

Give me a break.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Looey, Catfish and Kitty

When I was a kid, Luis Tiant was a god in Boston. Despite playing in a town with a vast array of problems with race relations at the time, Luis had no trouble making the people of Boston embrace him. It didn’t matter that he was a dark-skinned Latino, he had enough style and charisma to overcome all that, charming the pants off even the most ardent racists in Southie. From his whirlybird delivery, to his shimmying glove when he came set from the stretch, to his monster cigars during post-game interviews and the shifting nature of his birthday, Looey was utterly beloved in that town.

Character aside, it should be remembered that Tiant was a damn good pitcher, too. His
1968 season in Cleveland was one of the finest in terms of raw numbers in the history of the sport; 21-8, 264 strikeouts, a league-leading 1.60 ERA and nine shutouts. Denny McLain’s monster year prevented Luis from not only winning the Cy Young but also from receiving a single vote, but he was tied for fifth in the MVP voting while playing for a team the finished more than 16 games out of first place, and that speaks volumes for his performance.

Only wicked arm trouble and prehistoric sports medicine allowed Luis to come to Boston, where he become both famous and utterly critical to the success of the late ‘70s Red Sox, a club that was stacked with offensive talent and always finding itself one pitcher short of the playoffs. In his first full year with the club, 1972, Tiant was their best pitcher, and would be for five straight years. In three of those, 1973, 1974 and 1976, he was also their best overall player, leading a club that was above .500 every year, and would win one pennant and miss the playoffs on the season’s final day another two times.

In his only post-season appearance in Boston, Tiant was masterful. He started four games and the Sox won all of them, with Tiant himself going 3-0 with a 2.65 ERA. He threw a
complete game three-hitter to open the 1975 ALCS and followed that up with a complete game, five-hit shutout against the Big Red Machine to open the 1975 World Series. The legendary rumor about his Game Four win had him throwing 163 pitches, and he was the starter in the epic Game Six as well. Very few players have won the World Series MVP Award in a losing effort, but Looey was one of them.

Tiant did all of this despite being, by some accounts, well into his 40s in his final seasons in Boston, and despite playing in one of the more harsh environments possible for a pitcher –
Fenway Park before the press box was expanded. The park factors in Fenway during Tiant’s seven full seasons there were 105, 105, 106, 108, 111, 111 and 109, meaning it was not only a hitters’ park but one of them more severe hitters parks in history. Despite that, Tiant never posted an ERA higher than the overall league average, and was generally 20% or more better than average, even winning his second league ERA title in 1972. He was, without question, an outstanding pitcher.

Fans of Luis Tiant weren’t terribly surprised that he wasn’t elected to the Hall of Fame on
his first ballot in 1988. He wasn’t one of those automatic immortals who would sweep in without objection. Still, the only pitcher on the ballot to outvote him was Jim Bunning, and by garnering over 30% of the voted on his first ballot, things looked pretty promising for his ultimate election. Up until that 1988 ballot, every single player except one who garnered 30% of the votes cast on his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot was ultimately elected. The overwhelming majority of them were elected by the BBWAA, with the rest being inducted by the Veterans’ Committee. Maury Wills was the lone player who failed to have either body induct him.

In such cases, the typical scenario was for the player to get a healthy percentage on his first try on the ballot, with that serving as a signal of sorts to other writers that maybe they should reexamine the players’ qualifications. Over the next few years, more and more writers would shift their stance and cast votes for the player, whose support would steadily increase until they either were voted in outright, or had so much support and publicity by the time they fell off the ballot that they were shortly elected by the Veterans’ Committee.

With Tiant, there was absolutely no reason for anyone to expect this scenario to change.
Just the year before, the BBWAA had elected Catfish Hunter, a contemporary of Tiant’s who posted extremely similar career statistics:

Hunter – 224 wins, .574 winning percentage, 2012 strikeouts, 42 shutouts, 3.26 ERA, 104 ERA+
Tiant – 229 wins, .571 winning percentage, 2416 strikeouts, 49 shutouts, 3.30 ERA, 114 ERA+

Hunter had started on the ballot in 1985 with nearly 54% of the votes cast. That was a much better start than Tiant, but it was easily explained by the fact that Hunter played much of his career for outstanding, high-profile teams that won five World Series. On top of that, Hunter had won a
Cy Young Award in 1974, barely outvoting Fergie Jenkins, so his Hall of Fame case looked a bit better on its surface. In truth, it was Tiant who actually had the better career, given the difficult pitching conditions in the home parks he played in. This is reflected in the respective career WARP3 scores of the two men; 98.0 for Tiant, 70.7 for Hunter. (In fact, in Hunter’s Cy Young season of 1974, Tiant actually had the better WARP3 score – 10.6 to 10.1). But none of that was discussed back in 1988. At the time, the fact that Looey got a few less votes than Hunter his first time out and might take a bit longer to be elected was perfectly understandable.

What made no sense at all was what happened on the following year’s ballot.

When the
1989 Hall of Fame voting results were announced, Luis Tiant was no longer the second-best pitcher on the ballot, in the voters’ eyes. He trailed not only Bunning in the final voting, but also newcomers Gaylord Perry and Fergie Jenkins. That’s not too shabby, though, since both men won over 300 and would be elected in the near future. Unfortunately, Tiant also trailed newcomer Jim Kaat, and found himself tied with Roy Face and Mickey Lolich, two players he had easily outvoted the prior year. In fact, no player on the ballot saw a bigger drop in his vote total than Luis Tiant, whose support dropped from 132 votes to just 47. An astonishing 85 voters, nearly two-thirds of Tiant’s supports, suddenly decided that he was no longer worthy of their vote.

Okay, said the Tiant supporters, let’s not panic. A lot of good players were eligible for the first time, maybe this was just a temporary glitch. Within the next couple of years, Jenkins and Perry would be elected, the theory went, and Tiant’s support would come back. His route to the Hall might be a bit longer, but he’d still get there. There was still reason to hope.

At least, there was until the
1990 voting results were announced, and Tiant’s support had dropped yet again. It dropped even further in 1991, to just 32 votes, or 7.2%, and never really recovered. While his totals crept back up a bit over the years, they generally lingered around 12%, topping out at 18% on his last year of eligibility.

Meanwhile, Jim Kaat jumped onto the ballot in 1989 at nearly 20% and never really saw his support change at all. It dropped to 14% at one point, and rose to over 29% at another, but for the most part Kaat saw his yearly support stay within a couple of percentage points of the 20% where he started. He never once reached a level of support that could match the nearly 31% Tiant collected in his very first year on the ballot, and yet he outvoted Tiant in every single one of the 14 years they appeared on the ballot together.

Why? Your guess is as good as mine. During their respective primes, Kaat was never considered as good a pitcher as Tiant. Thanks to his longevity, plus the fact that Tiant, despite great numbers in the minor leagues and Mexican League, didn’t get to the big leagues until he was 24, Kaat won 54 more total games than Tiant, but 36 of those extra wins came in prime number-padding time, when Kaat was as an ineffective starter and long reliever after he passed his 38th birthday. Pretty much every other number favors Tiant:

Winning Percentage: Tiant, .571; Kaat, ,544
Shutouts: Tiant, 49; Kaat, 31
ERA: Tiant, 3.30; Kaat, 3.45
ERA+: Tiant, 114; Kaat, 107
WARP3: Tiant, 98.0; Kaat, 94.4

Now, in truth, I don’t really think Luis Tiant should be in the Hall of Fame. His career really only compares well to existing Hall of Famers like Hunter, who are borderline themselves. But I know Tiant was better than the likes of Jim Kaat and
Tommy John, pitchers who amassed higher win totals by throwing a half-dozen mediocre-to-bad seasons in their geriatric years, and were otherwise inferior to Tiant in every way. Yet both of them handily outvoted Tiant in Hall of Fame voting, results that paint a stark portrait of the BBWAA’s inability to figure out what makes a good pitcher and what doesn’t.

Even more interesting to me is the massive drop in support Tiant suffered after his first season on the ballot. No player had ever received that much support on his first ballot appearance and then suffered such a steep decline in his vote total. Part of the funky result can be blamed on an untimely influx of better pitchers onto the ballot, starting with Jenkins and Perry, and continuing with
Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver and Phil Niekro and Steve Carlton. Following established BBWAA voting practices, lesser lights like Kaat and John and Don Sutton stole even more votes, so it’s pretty clear there was never any real chance that Tiant would be elected.

Still, I’d love to ask some of those 85 voters who dropped him from their ballots after just one year exactly what the hell they were thinking. Didn’t a player as good and as charismatic as Luis Tiant deserve a little better?

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The 2005 AL Cy Young Award

True to the hint dropped at the end of my last post, I'm going to explore the 2005 AL Cy Young Award, but first let me be clear about my purpose.

While I believe that Johan Santana and Mariano Rivera were clearly the two best pitchers in the league that year, I'm not going to argue that one of them should have won the award. I recognize that each of them faced a significant challenge to winning the award, challenges that the BBWAA rarely works hard enough to overlook. In Santana's case, his team's general mediocrity suppressed his win total, and in Rivera's case, his role as a reliever kept him from throwing very many innings. I could go chapter and verse on why either man was a better pitcher in 2005 than anyone else in the league, but that's been done before by many, and I'm not in the mood to do it again.

Instead, I want to have a discussion of how the BBWAA evaluates candidates for the Cy Young in general, and I think I've identified the perfect candidates for framing this discussion.

Bartolo Colon was the winner of the American League Cy Young Award in 2005, receiving 17 of the 28 possible first-place votes. This award was based upon Colon's 21-8 record and 3.48 ERA for the AL West champion Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. His teammate, John Lackey, posted a record of 14-5 and a similar ERA of 3.44. He didn't receive a single Cy Young vote, but when his performance for the season is compared to Colon's, I think the similarities are noteworthy.

Both players started 33 games, and the Angels went 22-11 in both Colon's starts and Lackey's starts, so clearly each man gave his team an equal chance to win. Colon was a bit more durable and a bit more efficient with his pitches than Lackey was. He walked 28 fewer hitters and gave up fewer hits per inning, while hitting fewer batters and throwing considerably fewer wild pitches. All of these results generally tended to keep his pitch counts down and extend the time he could spend in each game. Consequently, Colon threw almost 14 more innings than Lackey did. Colon also threw three more quality starts than did Lackey, 21-18. All of this led to Colon getting the decision in 29 of his 33 starts, nearly 88%, compared to just 19 for Lackey, or 58%. Much of that is due to Colon's efficiency and durability, and he should absolutely get credit for that. Taking a look at the WARP3 marks (7.5 for Colon, 6.5 for Lackey) and Win Shares (19 for Colon, 17 for Lackey) for each shows us that he does. I will not try to argue that Colon wasn't slightly better than John Lackey in 2005, because clearly he was.

That said, there are quite a few factors in Lackey's favor that narrow the gap between them significantly:

  • Lackey faced tougher competition. Eighteen of his 33 starts came against teams with records of .500 or better. This compares to 15 for Colon, who racked up 11 of his 21 wins against sub-.500 teams, while Lackey posted 11 of his 14 wins against winning ballclubs.
  • Lackey pitched more of his games on the road. While Colon got to start 18 of his games in Anaheim, Lackey had to start 19 games on the road.
  • Lackey enjoyed considerably less run support than Colon did. On average, the Angels scored two-thirds of a run more in each of Colon's starts than in Lackey's. Seven different times the Angels scored double-digit runs for Colon, compared to just once for Lackey. This contributed to the fact that Lackey turned in six quality starts in which he got no decision, compared to just three for Colon.
  • On average, the Angels allowed fewer total runs in Lackey's starts, committing fewer errors and allowing fewer unearned runs, a traditional hallmark of a more engaged defense. In other words, his teammates seemed more interested in playing behind him.
  • Lackey allowed half as many home runs, just 13 to Colon's 26, while striking out batters at a much higher rate, 8.6 per nine innings to just 6.3 for Colon, indicating that on an inning-for-inning basis, Lackey demonstrated more dominance over his opponents than Colon did.
  • The Angels' bullpen blew three saves after Lackey left the game, cutting his possible win total by three, while they didn't blow a single lead for Colon all season.

When all of these factors are combined, and the respective records of the two pitchers are neutralized (according to baseball-reference.com) to account for home-road discrepancies, run support, etc., we find that their marks aren't terribly different:

Colon: 14-10, 3.33 ERA, 224.3 innings, 158 strikeouts, 42 walks
Lackey: 14-9, 3.21 ERA, 210.3 innings, 200 strikeouts, 70 walks

In other words, Lackey's neutralized record is very close to the record he actual posted, while Colon's makes it clear that his final numbers were largely the result of fortunate circumstances beyond his control.

Now, even presuming that Colon should get an extra couple of wins due to durability issues, the question becomes this; Why did Bartolo Colon win the Cy Young Award in 2005 when a teammate with an extremely similar performance didn't receive a single vote? Was Colon so much better than Lackey that he deserved to be labeled the best pitcher in the league while Lackey received no consideration for that title at all? I don't think so.

I think the BBWAA saw that league-leading win total and stopped asking questions. Colon won more games than anyone and he did it for a division winner, so the question of whether or not his performance was really indicative of the best pitching in the league became an open and shut case for most voters. At the same time, Lackey's comparatively pedestrian win total, particularly in the absence of a league leading ERA or strikeout total, eliminated him from consideration for most, if not all, of the writers before they even filled out their ballots.

This is pretty typical for the BBWAA. Time and again, we've seen them focus on one or two key statistics - wins for starters and saves for relievers in the Cy Young voting, RBI for hitters in the MVP voting - and essentially halt their performance analysis at that point. I don't agree with it, but I've come to expect it.

Still, when you've got a situation like Colon and Lackey in 2005, you'd hope the voters would take a bit more time to examine just a couple of basics. If any one of them had bothered to look at them side-by-side, they would have seen two teammates with nearly identical ERAs who started the same number of games for the same team, and the team posted identical 22-11 records in their respective starts. On the field, where all of this is supposed to matter, John Lackey and Bartolo Colon provided essentially equal value to the Angels, with Colon providing a touch more due to his added durability. Wouldn't the voters, if they were really doing their jobs, takes pains to ensure that the voting results reflected this reality? If you really think Colon was the best pitcher in the league, shouldn't Lackey be somewhere down your ballot, probably just one slot below Colon?

Instead, we get the writers sending the tacit message that they really only consider one or two numbers when they cast their votes, whether those are the proper numbers to consider or not. Silly results ensue, leaving anyone who cares about this stuff either scratching their head or, even worse, expressing no surprise at all considering how frequently this kind of thing happens.

For me, I can't help but think that it's a pretty sad commentary on the voting process when it's no longer surprising that the results of the writers' ballots don't match the reality we witness on the field.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Re-Focused Blog

Never let it be said that I can't take coaching.

One of the criticisms leveled at this site, and therefore at me, has been that many of the posts focus on some relatively esoteric aspects of the BBWAA's various voting failures. Aren't there more important things to write about, the criticism goes, than whether or not Phil Rogers casts a couple of biased votes at the bottom of an otherwise strong Hall of Fame ballot?

Well in retrospect, yes, there are. I have been trying to demonstrate in this site's first few months that the BBWAA's failures as so numerous that they run the full gamut of impact, from the obviously egregious (Alan Trammell losing the 1987 MVP award; Ron Santo's exclusion from the Hall of Fame) to the nuanced (
Gerry Fraley's pitiful list of absent Hall of Famers). Their failures, in other words, aren’t limited to the occasional mishap, but are rather of a systemic nature, impacting an enormous percentage of baseball’s year- and career-end honors. I will continue my effort to make that issue clear, and can’t promise that I won’t still post about some comparatively obscure issue from time to time.

That said, I don’t want to dwell upon every single questionable BBWAA vote. Did
Bruce Sutter get a Cy Young Award in 1979 when Phil Niekro probably had a better year? Yeah, I think so. But Sutter was awfully good that year, there was no slam dunk, Cy-worthy season by any other pitcher, and Niekro pitched for an atrocious team and lost twenty games, so you won’t find me tilting at that particular windmill.

Instead, I will make every effort in the future to focus on those voting results that clearly represent failures of the process.
Pete Vuckovich’s 1982 Cy Young Award is a good example. I don’t think many people would have had much problem with that award going to Bill Caudill or Dave Stieb or Dan Quisenberry or Rick Sutcliffe or a few other pitchers who turned in solid performances that year. The problem arose because one subset of the BBWAA labeled Pete Vuckovich the best pitcher in the league, over a couple of dozen pitchers who were demonstrably better, while another subset decided that Vuckovich wasn’t even the most valuable pitcher on his team. That kind of result is the hallmark of a horribly broken process, and will continue to get my attention.

Moving forward, I will also make every effort to be clear that I believe there is room for differing opinions in the debate. I have never meant to imply that the views I express here are absolutes, and any BBWAA result that runs counter to them must therefore be in error. Reasonable, intelligent people often come to perfectly acceptable opposing conclusions. As long as the reasons for the difference are explained, particularly when it’s clear that genuine effort is put into the process, you won’t see me complaining. For instance, I will not criticize
Jayson Stark or Joe Posnanski on this site, despite the fact that I don’t agree with some of their Hall of Fame ballot choices. Both men demonstrate obvious passion for the game, its history and the awards process, while also making it clear that they are open to both differing opinions and alternate methods of evaluating players. In short, they take their voting responsibilities seriously, and therefore I won’t haggle with the ultimate results of their efforts.

Now, whether or not “effort” was put in by the guys who decided
Bartolo Colon was the best pitcher in the American League in 2005, that’s a different story…

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Slings and Arrows

There's nothing quite like being called "horrible" and "pedantic" to brighten your day.

At some point earlier today, my last article about Phil Rogers
was posted over at The Baseball Think Factory, where it was promptly skewered by that site's regular members. One poster, who bravely chooses not to reveal his name, age, occupation, education, or anything else about his personal background or qualifications other than his painfully lengthy attempt at a pithy screen name, was particularly harsh, calling the article;

"The saddest, most pity-inspiring "forest for the trees" sort of nitpicking."

Given the studious anonymity of the source, I have to admit that I wasn't terribly shattered. And, I must say, the decision to focus on the shortcomings of the messenger instead of the message itself doesn’t really seem to be in keeping with the spirit of any site that calls itself a "think factory".

That said, I'm grateful to whoever decided to post the link to my piece, regardless of the criticisms leveled, because it furthers my ultimate goal. See, I'm not in this for money. I have not made, and probably never will make, a single dime from any writing. As I've said before, I'm amply compensated in my career of choice, a career I have no desire to leave unless I finally manage to buy the right lottery ticket. I don't want to be famous, either, since I knowingly possess a face for radio and a personality ill-suited to spewing politically correct pabulum in public.

I'm also not trying to become a professional writer, and readily acknowledge that I don't write as well as most, and probably all, of the BBWAA members that I criticize. If anyone cares to read through all of my prior posts, you will note that I make no criticisms of anyone's writing or phraseology or whatever. I've confined myself to an assessment of their logic in matters related to evaluating baseball players.

And that's the point. Sling as many criticisms about my writing style, or my admittedly spotty attempts at statistical analysis, as you would like. That's all quite alright with me as long as it results in people actively beginning to discuss the BBWAA's qualifications for voting for post-season and career-end awards, in far more depth than is currently the case.

In exchange for that outcome, I'm perfectly content to serve as a target of convenience for a few
21-year olds and computer nerds who would rather criticize others than take the responsibility to publicly offer anything on the subject themselves.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Case Study - Phil Rogers

It’s a bit hard to come by BBWAA members who are writing up their Hall of Fame thoughts this time of year, so please pardon the delay in getting another case study written up. I’ve resorted to digging up articles on past votes for this one.

Phil Rogers, the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, is today’s example of BBWAA logic. A couple of years ago, he wrote a very nice column in support of Andre Dawson’s Hall of Fame case for ESPN. Last year, he lent his views on the ballot to ESPN again, checking off the following names:

Tony Gwynn
Cal Ripken
Goose Gossage
Andre Dawson
Jim Rice
Jack Morris
Bert Blyleven
Alan Trammell
Harold Baines

Now, under normal circumstances, I would be loathe to criticize any voter who threw his support toward Gossage, Rice, Blyleven and Trammell, four guys who I think are clearly deserving of election but have been under-supported for years. But there’s something screwy about Rogers’ ballot that simply cries out for criticism, so here goes.

First let’s deal with Dawson. I have personally stated in the past that I would vote for Andre Dawson, not because he’s terribly qualified for the Hall of Fame under ideal conditions, but because a series of hideously bad selections in the past have left Dawson in the position of being better than nearly half of the right fielder who currently carry the label “Hall of Famer”. Note the following career WARP3 scores:

Andre Dawson – 108.8
Tommy McCarthy – 33.8
Elmer Flick – 92.3
Sam Rice – 83.2
Kiki Cuyler – 86.5
Harry Hooper – 93.0
Ross Youngs – 59.1
Sam Thompson – 94.6
Chuck Klein – 79.0
Enos Slaughter – 104.2

That’s nine, count ‘em, nine Hall of Fame right fielders who had lesser careers than Andre Dawson, so I’m not at all opposed to voting for him. That said, I hard a hard time with anyone who voted for Dawson but then didn’t vote for
Dave Parker. While it’s true that Parker’s WARP3 score falls far short of Dawson’s (85.8), it’s still right in there with the Kiki Cuylers and Sam Rices of the baseball world. More importantly, since Rogers and most other writers could care less about such new-fangled stats as WARP, is the fact that Parker fares very nicely against Dawson when the traditional numbers are compared. Here are their respective 162-game averages:

At-Bats – Parker, 615; Dawson, 612
Runs – Parker, 84; Dawson, 85
Hits – Parker, 178; Dawson, 171
Doubles – Parker, 35; Dawson, 31
Triples – Parker, 5; Dawson, 6
Home Runs – Parker, 22; Dawson, 27
RBI – Parker, 98; Dawson, 98
Steals – Parker, 10; Dawson, 19
Walks – Parker, 45; Dawson, 36
Strikeouts – Parker, 101; Dawson, 93
Batting Average – Parker, .290; Dawson, .279
On-Base Percentage – Parker, .339; Dawson, .323
Slugging Percentage – Parker, .471; Dawson, .482
OPS+ - Parker, 121; Dawson, 119

Umm, aren’t these guys pretty close? Granted, Dawson was a far superior defender, and he obviously has all of the character points in his favor in this debate, but it’s a much closer argument than you’d think. I have personally waffled back and forth on both guys, and I usually come to the conclusion that Dawson gets a sympathy vote due to all of the crappy right fielder already in the Hall, while Parker’s coke habit prevents him from being granted the same courtesy, but minus that factor I would vote the same for each. It would be nice if someone in Rogers’ position would take the time to explain why he voted for Dawson but not Parker. You know, maybe put in a little bit of effort. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

This is particularly true when the voter in question handed in a ballot that included a vote for
Harold Baines. Using Parker as the foil again, the Baines vote looks like nothing but a blatant case of a hometown writer throwing a guy a bone.

Here are the 162-game averages again:

At-Bats – Parker, 615; Baines, 567
Runs – Parker, 84; Baines, 74
Hits – Parker, 178; Baines, 164
Doubles – Parker, 35; Baines, 28
Triples – Parker, 5; Baines, 3
Home Runs – Parker, 22; Baines, 22
RBI – Parker, 98; Baines, 93
Steals – Parker, 10; Baines, 2
Walks – Parker, 45; Baines, 61
Strikeouts – Parker, 101; Baines, 82
Batting Average – Parker, .290; Baines, .289
On-Base Percentage – Parker, .339; Baines, .356
Slugging Percentage – Parker, .471; Baines, .465
OPS+ - Parker, 121; Baines, 120

Sorry Phil, but on a day-by-day basis, Dave Parker was just a better player than Harold Baines, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Baines was an absolute defensive nightmare for the vast majority of his career while Parker was a Gold Glover for a while. (Well, I guess I just did.) Sure, Baines wins the character battle again, but by enough to qualify for the Hall of Fame when a clearly better player, Parker, doesn’t make Rogers’ personal cut list? I don’t see it.

Even if you think Parker is a bad example, which he is to a degree, then consider Rogers’ omission of
Dale Murphy. Again, these are 162-game averages:

At-Bats – Murphy, 592; Baines, 567
Runs – Murphy, 89; Baines, 74
Hits – Murphy, 157; Baines, 164
Doubles – Murphy, 26; Baines, 28
Triples – Murphy, 3; Baines, 3
Home Runs – Murphy, 30; Baines, 22
RBI – Murphy, 94; Baines, 93
Steals – Murphy, 12; Baines, 2
Walks – Murphy, 73; Baines, 61
Strikeouts – Murphy, 130; Baines, 82
Batting Average – Murphy, .265; Baines, .289
On-Base Percentage – Murphy, .346; Baines, .356
Slugging Percentage – Murphy, .469; Baines, .465
OPS+ - Murphy, 121; Baines, 120

Now throw in Murphy Gold Glove defense at a prime defensive position, his back-to-back MVP awards (by the way, Baines’ top finish in the MVP voting was 9th in 1985), and his legendary stellar character and it’s pretty clear that Dale Murphy was a much better baseball player than Harold Baines. The only thing he lacked was longevity, but had he gone the DH route like Baines, who’s to say Murphy couldn’t have played just as long as Baines did?

So why do Andre Dawson and Harold Baines appear on Phil Rogers’ Hall of Fame ballot while Dave Parker and Dale Murphy do not? Easy, Dawson and Baines played huge chunks of their careers in Chicago, and that’s Phil Rogers’ town. He’s out beating the drum for their admission to the Hall of Fame for the simple fact that he knows them, he likes them, he saw them play a lot, and therefore he’s decided they should be in Cooperstown despite the fact that he passed over extremely similar players on the same ballot.

Well, if Rogers is voting for these guys out of sheer familiarity and nothing more, hasn’t he just hung an enormous “I’m not objective” sign around his neck? And, if so, isn’t he a walking, talking example of why the baseball writers shouldn’t be voting in the first place?

Monday, June 25, 2007

The 1982 AL Cy Young Award

There haven’t been many good baseball movies. Think back through the history of the sport on film and you can probably count up the good baseball flicks on one hand an still have some fingers in reserve. There’s “The Natural”, “Pride of the Yankees”, and “Field of Dreams”, and after that everything is debatable.

Bang the Drum Slowly”? Downer. Who could like any movie that ends with a funeral?

Fear Strikes Out”? An effeminate Tony Perkins playing center field in Fenway? Surely you jest.

And don’t even go “
Little Big League”, “Cobb”, or “Mr. 3000” on me. I’m telling you, don’t. It won’t be pretty.

I think the next closest thing you’ll find to consensus on a baseball movie is “
Major League”. Funny. Good characters. Charlie Sheen when he was still on cocaine. Dennis Haysbert before he became president as a Cuban slugger who practices voodoo. Renee Russo before the third facelift. Lots to work with in this movie.

One of my personal favorites was the supposed “bad guy” who played for the Yankees, Clue Haywood, the Triple Crown-winning, tobacco-spitting, fat, ugly bastard played so well by real-life Milwaukee Brewers pitcher
Pete Vuckovich. Few people realize that the movie, while about the fictionalized Cleveland Indians, was actually filmed in Milwaukee, which is how they got Bob Uecker to be the radio announcer and Vuckovich to play the bad guy.

Vuckovich had only two lines in the movie, but they were both good. Talking to the film’s star, Tom Berenger, when he walked up to the plate the first time, Vuckovich said, “Hey, are you still in the league?” He then followed that with the killer, “How’s your wife and my kids?” Classic.

I can’t help but wonder if Vuckovich would have even been considered for that part if the Baseball Writers Association of America hadn’t pulled one of its’ bigger boners by handing him the
1982 American League Cy Young Award when he didn’t deserve it. That one-time splash of fame in an otherwise forgettable career probably gave Vuckovich a film career that would have never happened if the BBWAA wasn’t wholly unqualified to vote on post-season awards.

The 1982 Cy Young voting is one of the bigger travesties you’ll ever see in sports. The Brewers, a lovable bunch of bashers who were collectively known as “Harvey’s Wallbangers” after their manager,
Harvey Kuenn, had a murderer’s row lineup that sported a pair of former home run champs (Gorman Thomas and Ben Oglivie), a smooth, powerful first baseman (Cecil Cooper), and near Hall of Fame catcher (Ted Simmons) and two actual Hall of Famers (Paul Molitor and Robin Yount). The club had a definite beer league softball team vibe about it, right down to their nickname and mascot, and they bashed their way to 95 wins, the most runs in the league, an MVP award for Yount, and a seven-game World Series loss.

Apparently the BBWAA felt this collection colorful guys deserved a Cy Young winner as well, because they decided to bestow the award upon Vuckovich at the end of the season. Vuckovich was a true journeyman, having already pitched for the Cardinals and expansion Blue Jays and failing to distinguish himself in either location. He joined the Brewers in 1981, and while he was serviceable enough, there was nothing terribly distinguishing about him either. Minus the BBWAA’s intervention, Vuckovich would probably be best remembered as the only player to reach the big leagues from
Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

But, by the grace of that booming offense, Vuckovich managed to post a record of 18-6 in 1982, with a solid, but rather pedestrian, ERA of 3.34 . That mark was 14% better than the league average, but certainly nothing remarkable. He didn’t lead the league in any important pitching categories, he barely struck out 100 batters in over 220 innings (an anemic rate of just 4.23 strikeouts per nine innings pitched) and allowed a mammoth number of base runners (1.502 WHIP). In a neutral context, where all ballpark factors and winning probabilities are leveled, Vuckovich projected to a record of just 13-11, with a 3.58 ERA. Nothing terribly special there.

At least , not unless you’re a voter for the Cy Young Award. They seem to look for one thing, and one thing only. Wins. Lots and lots of wins. Boy do the voters love a big win total on a starting pitcher, and in 1982, that really favored Clue Haywood…I mean, Pete Vuckovich. Vuck finished tied for second in the league in wins, 18 to be exact. That was one less than league-leader
LaMarr Hoyt, but since Hoyt’s White Sox finished with just 87 wins, six games behind the Angels in the AL West, I guess the voters felt that his wins didn’t matter as much. (To make up for it, the voters gave Hoyt a Cy Young Award he didn’t deserve the next season.)

It also apparently didn’t matter that Vuckovich really wasn’t all that good in every category other than wins. He pitched just over 223 innings, not a terribly remarkable total that didn’t even crack the league’s top-10. He struck out 105 batters, a pretty anemic total for that many innings, and nowhere close to the top-30 in the league. (Let’s put it this way; Mariners closer
Bill Caudill stuck out more hitters despite pitching 128 fewer innings. Ouch.) Vuckovich’s ERA was a solid 3.34, tied for 6th in the league, but that mark wasn’t terribly distinctive considering that Milwaukee’s County Stadium boasted a pitcher’s park factor of 93, meaning the park severely favored pitchers. In fact, it favored them so much that Vuckovich’s home-away splits were extreme (2.65 ERA at home; 3.95 away).

In essence, Vuckovich was a mildly above-average starting pitcher who happened to play for a team that scored more runs than any other in the league. In terms of stats like WARP3, where he’s granted a score based upon a neutralized environment, this essential mediocrity becomes obvious. Vuckovich scored 4.9 in WARP3 that year, a figure that was equaled or bettered by 33 different American League pitchers. He didn’t even have the best mark on the Brewers, where
Rollie Fingers posted a mark of 5.9.

Here’s a quick comparison of Vuckovich’s neutralized numbers against
Dennis Eckersley, one of those other pitchers:

Wins – Vuckovich, 13; Eckersley, 14
ERA – Vuckovich, 3.58; Eckersley, 3.39
Strikeouts – Vuckovich, 102; Eckersley, 129
WHIP – Vuckovich, 1.578; Eckersley, 1.140
Innings – Vuckovich, 223.1; Eckersley, 224.1

These guys were pretty much equals in 1982, with all of the slight edges going to Eckersley, who pitched for a pretty good Boston team that won 89 games. Do you know how many Cy Young votes Eckersley got that year? Zero. He wasn’t mentioned on a single ballot.

If that strikes you as quirky, just wait. It gets better. Since the BBWAA decided that Pete Vuckovich was clearly the best pitcher in the American League in 1982 (half of the first place Cy Young votes, almost three-times as many first place votes as any other pitcher, about 50% more total points that the second place finisher), it stands to reason that he would finish pretty well in the MVP voting, too. Right?

Interestingly, no, that’s not what it means at all. Vuckovich, supposedly the best pitcher in the league, finished
18th in the MVP voting with just 11 total points. Not only that, he wasn’t even the top pitcher on the ballot. That honor went to Dan Quisenberry, who finished 9th in the MVP voting, higher than any other pitcher despite being just 3rd in the Cy Young voting. Screwy, huh?

Wait, it gets better. Guess who else finished higher in the MVP voting? Rollie Fingers, one place and one point higher than his teammate, Pete Vuckovich. That’s right, while one section of the BBWAA decided that Pete Vuckovich was the best pitcher in the league, another section decided that he wasn’t the most valuable pitcher on his own team.

I realize that there’s always been some ambiguity about whether or not the Cy Young Award should go to the league’s best pitcher or the league’s “most valuable” pitcher, sort of a pitcher’s equivalent to the MVP. That’s never made much sense to me, but I recognize the confusion exists. Still, no matter how you slice it, the BBWAA screwed up this award. If the award was supposed to go to the most valuable pitcher, well we’ve already seen that other members of the BBWAA decided at least two pitchers were more qualified than Vuckovich. And if the award was supposed to go to the best pitcher, clearly it should have been someone other than Vuckovich. My personal choice would have been
Dave Stieb, whose neutralized record while pitching for a sub-.500 Toronto team, was 21-11, with a 2.84 ERA and 144 strikeouts in a whopping 288.1 innings. Caudill would have been a great choice, too (12-9, 26 saves, 2.35 ERA, 111 strikeouts in just over 95 innings for a bad Seattle team). Or, of course, Quiz (9-7, 35 saves, 2.57 ERA in over 136 relief innings, a huge number). Hell, I could name a good two dozen pitchers here.

But, alas, the voters decided that Vuckovich was their man. While it remains an indefensible choice, at least it resulted in us having the immortal Clue Haywood. That’s more than we have to show for most BBWAA foul-ups.